Rapist, tracked by DNA, gets two life terms

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005

The man who raped a Gaithersburg woman in 1991 but remained unidentified for more than a decade until DNA evidence found him culpable will serve two life sentences in prison, the county state’s attorney said Thursday.

Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan sentenced Ernest Daniel Lewis, who lived in Gaithersburg when he raped the 43-year-old woman in October 1991, to two concurrent life sentences.

The outcome was hailed by State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler as a victory for forensic science.

‘‘It will happen with more frequency in this jurisdiction as time goes on,” Gansler said Tuesday, referring to how the evolution of DNA and computer science will lead to similar convictions from cold cases.

A jury convicted Lewis July 28 on one count of first-degree rape and one count of first-degree sex offense after a four-day trial.

Lewis’ public defender, Brian Shefferman, was unavailable Tuesday to comment.

The incident occurred Oct. 5, 1991, when Lewis confronted the woman with a handgun after she had fallen asleep while watching a movie in the basement of her Gaithersburg townhouse, according to assistant state’s attorney Alex Foster and a release from the state’s attorney’s office.

Lewis said he was on drugs and wanted money. He hit the woman on her face with the gun every time she tried to look at him, cutting her several times, according to the release.

He then dragged her through the house looking for cash and other valuables. Finding nothing, he raped the woman, telling her he would shoot her if she called police. Once he left, she did just that.

The county police crime laboratory later examined evidence culled by investigators at the scene and by examiners at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, identifying hair that was not from the woman and semen on the woman’s torn clothing and on swabs.

But it wasn’t enough to peg Lewis as responsible given the forensic capabilities of the day. ‘‘In 1991, they didn’t have the technology to do the DNA testing,” Foster, who helped convict Lewis, said.

So the case lay dormant for the rest of that decade and into the next as forensic science grew up.

In 2004, authorities reanalyzed the evidence, using the semen stains from the crime scene, and developed a DNA profile, which they searched against the National DNA Databank, a log of DNA ‘‘fingerprints” of convicted felons, Foster said.

They matched the profile they got from the crime scene to that of a convicted offender in the Virginia DNA Databank who was serving a sentence in that state for a burglary: Lewis. But that wasn’t all authorities based their case on.

‘‘He matched the general description,” Foster said, adding that authorities then took a second DNA sample and did an additional test in a different laboratory. ‘‘Both labs came up with the same result.”

By the time the case went to trial in July, Lewis admitted he and the woman had had sex—consensual sex. But the DNA evidence was overwhelming.

‘‘The jury didn’t buy it at all,” Foster said. ‘‘And they convicted him.”